Marlene Schonbrun: My Photographic Safari to Kenya

Marlene Schonbrun, Kenya SafariLast September, I got to fulfill one of the items on my “bucket list” for over thirty years—a photographic safari to Africa. Belonging to a camera club with members who travel all over the world gave me incentive and the motivation to seriously consider it. A friend and I went with a small group led by two photographers, John and Barbara Gerlach, who used a travel agency called International Expeditions. We visited Kenya, which is a little smaller than Texas, with much of its land either semi-desert or arid.

Preparing for the trip was no simple matter. In addition to learning about the culture, animals, and conservation of the areas we would be visiting, we needed to get a prescription for malaria pills from an infectious disease doctor, get inoculated against yellow fever, and purchase enough photographic equipment, several lenses, and memory cards to last the entire trip. We were also told to buy fragrance free products.

Our accommodations were deluxe tented camps or a lodge. Tents are canvas with a thatched roof, double sinks, a bathroom, and a shower. Electricity was shut o aer midnight, but we were provided with ash lights. Although my pre-trip fears included getting bitten by mosquitoes or having a snake crawl into my tent, I did not see a single mosquito or snake the entire trip! We did, however, have to deal with the omnipresent monkeys, who love to get into the tents. We had to close the double zippers and put a table against it to keep them out. One time, my friend saw a monkey peering down at her from the top of the tent. They are as curious about us as we are about them. Sometimes while we were eating, we would dine with the monkeys. And we dined on very tasty and wonderfully prepared food with all kinds of fruits and vegetables washed with sterile water.

Within Kenya, our group traveled in a caravan of five land rovers. Each vehicle had three people and a driver. Usually each vehicle holds up to nine observers; but, because we were photographers, we needed access to both sides of the vehicle. We le our camp or lodge before sunrise because that is when the animals are more active, and because the light is spectacular for photographing. The staff brought hot tea or coffee to our tent before we le, and a boxed breakfast was brought along, which we ate around 10:00 a.m. We returned to camp around 12:30 for lunch, and rest time, although I usually downloaded images from our morning shoot. We left again late in the afternoon for our second tour of the day because at sunset the animals are more visible. They sleep or rest during the heat of the day.

Safaris are not strenuous because you’re in a vehicle most of the day, but the roads are not paved, and there are a lot of bumps, potholes, dirt mounds, underbrush, and hippo pools to get through. ere is a lot of dust, and the vehicles are open, so I used some medication that someone else in the group brought along to settle my stomach.

It is amazing to see all the species share their space in harmony in their natural environment without bars or glass or small enclosures. Of course harmony ends when an animal hunts or is being hunted. I knew I did not want to look at one animal killing another, nor take pictures of this, yet found myself being able to tolerate the stalking. I surprised myself by being able to watch the animal eat its prey and to be able to photograph this.

Our group visited three very different game reserves. Samburu is considered the most picturesque and lush. While there, we saw Grevy’s zebras, ostriches, gerunuks, olive baboons, dik-diks, and reticulated giraffes, among other creatures. We also visited the Samburu tribesmen, who are related to the Maasai. The men are famous for their high jumping dances. We were told that those who jump the highest are considered the healthiest and therefore the most desirable. e women wear layers of beads in choker fashion around their necks. It is a polygamous society.

Flamingoes in Lake Nakuru National Park. Photo by Marlene Schonbrun

Flamingoes in Lake Nakuru National Park. Photo by Marlene Schonbrun

The next reserve was Lake Nakuru National Park, oen called the greatest ornithological spectacle in the world and known for its millions of pink flamingos and white pelicans. Unfortunately, most of the flamingos had gone elsewhere because decreased water levels have reduced algae, which is the main food for flamingos. So, we only saw a few hundred. But we saw endangered black and white rhinos, the Rothschild giraffe, gazelles, impalas, common zebras, African buffalo, Eland waterbuck, and leopards.

The last game reserve was Maasai Mara. It is home to what is known as “e Big 5,” meaning lions, elephants, leopards, buffalos, and rhinos. We also saw cheetahs and spotted hyenas and were fortunate enough to witness the famous migration across the Mara River, which I termed “the river of danger.” The animals eat all the vegetation on one side of the river and must cross in order to and food elsewhere. Different species cross at the same time. We saw wildebeests, zebras, and topis. They sense the potential danger facing them, so they take hours or days or weeks to jump in and swim across, hoping to avoid the crocodiles waiting underwater. It was a very emotional experience for me to witness this. 

The Masaai people herd cattle, sheep, goats, and donkeys. They have a mystical attitude towards their cattle, which are used as payment, the establishment of marriage bonds, and for sacrifices for important ceremonial occasions. Women milk them, and the men protect them from danger. They are rarely eaten for their meat and slaughtered only if there is a food shortage.

Unfortunately, Kenya has suffered from a drop in tourism in recent years because of security concerns, so I was pleased to see very tight security in all the places we stayed. ere were many armed guards when entering any reserve or lodge, and on the highway there were also many checkpoints. e local Kenyan people we encountered were warm and welcomed conversation. Especially memorable was the time I got out of our vehicle to stretch my legs (at a gas station) and didn’t realize my expensive prescription sunglasses had fallen o where I had placed them to take photographs. I got back into the vehicle when suddenly there was a tap on the window and a man on a motorcycle was holding up my sunglasses. How lovely of this stranger to go out of his way to return them. is is one of the reasons I decided to write and speak about my trip. I promised the Kenyan people I met that I would encourage people to visit this amazing part of Africa. If this short article entices you to think about traveling there, and you want further information, I’d be happy to discuss it: marlenesch7@gmail.com.

— By Marlene Schonbrun

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